Guest Post by CJL: The Role of Sports in the Modern Context

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From a philosophical perspective, the infatuation and obsession with sports seems a bit strange. On a surface level they mainly involve two teams attempting to move some sort of ball or object across a line, through a hoop or in a hole. However, these games evoke immense passion, draw massive crowds and inspire almost a religious fervor in one’s favorite team. 

What can explain this all? 

Is there more than meets the eye?

In this guest post CJL provides some insight into my questions, and explains how we find meaning in sports. 


You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation

Plato

It’s 9 a.m. on a crisp fall Sunday morning in a midsized American city and tens of thousands of people have already gathered in coordinating colours to perform a day long ritual of eating, drinking and reciting ceremonial chants that have been passed down through generations. These circumstances could depict a religious ceremony or holiday festival. However, in this particular case, in the outskirts of Pittsburg, Kansas City, Houston, Seattle or a few dozen other locations, the community has gathered to spend the day watching football. It’s undeniable that sports have an impact that permeates through society in a way that nothing else can, it creates bonds and rivalries that can unite or divide over the course of decades. There must be more to this phenomenon than watching a group of athletes compete to put a ball into a net or run across an arbitrary line.

Sports, for both the athlete and the underlying fanbase, create a healthy medium for us to channel our natural tendencies towards competition and aggression. The origins of sport are believed to have developed as an offshoot of military training and included events such as wrestling, boxing, and running. The first Olympics occurred in 776BC and provided an outlet for the various city states of Ancient Greece to channel their nationalism in a healthy and competitive way. These athletes were not making tens of millions of dollars per year instead competing solely for pride and the “teams” they played for. Although these events would have been considered brutish by today’s standard and occasionally led to serious bodily injury and death, the Olympics and origins of sports provided a much healthier alternative to the constant state of war that was a condition of the times.

Lacrosse is considered to be one of the oldest North American team sports. In the traditional form of the game, Native American tribes of hundreds of men would play on a field miles long in games that could last days. Even in these early times, the tribe leaders understood that this was a healthy outlet for their members to express pride in their community and channel the need for competition. Similar to the ancient Olympics, the game was not without risk often leading to disfigurement or death, but it still acted as progressive alternative to warfare. In the Mohawk language, lacrosse is referred to as “Tewaaraton” which translates to “little brother of war.” The community impact and involvement extended far beyond the athletes as there were also roles for shamans, healers, and many ceremonial rituals leading up to the games. There was also material impacts as wagers between the tribes were placed on the outcomes. 

Although the consequences of modern sports are not as significant, many of the same sentiments and emotions have continued to this day. Take for example the recent Euro Cup, which pits the top European national soccer teams against each other over a month long competition to determine which country will hold bragging rights for the next four years. The nationalism and emotion that is created from this event extends far beyond the players, organizations, and even the individual nations. When Italy won, a unifying celebration took place across the country for days following the penalty shootout. The impact was much more widespread and global as similar parties could be found in Toronto, New Jersey, Argentina, and many other countries around the world which host an Italian diaspora. The modern Olympics are regarded as a global unifying event in which nations send their best athletes to compete for the title of world’s best. The contemporary state of the Olympics often pits the two world super powers of China and the USA in a race for superiority to see who can collect the most medals before the closing ceremonies. There are also significant financial outcomes for the athlete and national Olympic federations based on the results. This a healthier form of competition than allowing nationalism to manifest itself in a military context.

While professional and international sports play an important role in allowing nations and communities to channel their competitive nature and pride in a healthy way, participation in them also has a significant impact in personal development. Enrolling a child in a sport is one of the best ways for them to learn how to function within a group environment, how to win or lose graciously, and how to deal with challenges. Children who compete in competitive sports learn much more than how to dribble a basketball, shoot a hockey puck or putt a golf ball. What the environment is actually fostering is an ability to handle stress and battle through adversity which will greatly benefit them in future careers and life situations. We are seeing an attack on many of these fundamental principles as people argue that it is inappropriate for youth sports to award winners and losers instead promoting the idea that all kids deserve a trophy regardless of performance. This may have detrimental impacts on children as they become entitled and unable to understand the value of hard work and perseverance. The narrative of the comeback or underdog story is one of the most enthralling in sports and should not be watered down in the name of equality of outcomes.

The phrase, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying” was coined by the late wrestler Eddie Guerrero. While competition and the desire to win is the central motivation of sports, there must also be some level of ethics and respect for the game. Sports can only function when there is a universally agreed upon set of rules and norms that all athletes abide by to ensure a fair competition. The topic of steroids in sports draws a lot of controversy as these drugs allow athletes to compete at a superior level, but simultaneously subjugate the user to a greater risk of injury and potential for long term damage. It is for this reason, in addition to maintaining the integrity of the game, that most professional leagues ban the use of the performance enhancing substances. The debate over whether sports are worth the risk of bodily harm has also flared up within youth sports. In games which involve risk of injury, such as hockey or football, there are contrasting opinions over whether children should be given the opportunity to choose to compete. In Ontario, this debate has led the governing body to raise the age at which body checking is allowed in hockey. There will always be some risk competing in these activities. However, it is important to remember that this is a healthy avenue to channel aggression and competition through.

Whether or not the nationalism that sports conjures up, if athletes are overpaid and overvalued for their roles in society, and if children should be provided the opportunity to compete in activities which could potentially cause them harm are all up for debate within the modern context. However, if our human nature does in fact include a need for tribalism and competition, there may be no better avenue to channel this through. This idea, along with the opportunity for individual and community development, shows that sports do in fact play a key function within our modern society and will continue to do so in the future. It is now Sunday afternoon and the nearly 100,000 fans that have packed into the Steelers, Chiefs, Texans and Seahawks stadiums, along with millions watching at home would certainly agree.


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Reverse Engineering Bliss: Hacking the Flow State

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:04KJER0243.jpg

High stake situations require complete and utmost concentration. Any distraction or lapse of judgement can shift your attention away from the present moment, hindering your efforts to achieve a state of effortless flow. This could make all the difference in the final moments of a championship game or dictate whether you are in peak performance mode when giving a big presentation at work. In the case of extreme sports, there is no room for error. For athletes such as free solo rock climbers, being in a flow state is a matter of life or death. Scaling a boulder thousands of feet above the ground demands one to be immersed in their climbing, and plunge into the here and ‘now’.

We do not need to perform dangerous or extraordinary feats to achieve a state of flow. Many of us at some point in our lives have achieved these states of consciousness in one form or another. We all have interests and passions that we pursue for there own sake, irrespective of any attention or other benefits we may gain from them. We engage in these activities in which we experience moments which distort our sense of time, optimize our performance, silence our ego and make our actions feel effortless.

For me as a musician, these flow states occur when I ‘let go’ of over analyzing what I am playing, forego the fear of failure and channel my emotions into my guitar. This is why I admire the late great guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix. His live performances and remarkable solos are an exemplar of what is means to be in flow. Describing his 1969 Woodstock performance, David Moskowitz in his book The Words and Music of Jimi Hendrix writes,

The guitar solo in the middle of the song illustrated how lost in the music Jimi could be. He played for several minutes with his eyes tightly shut and the solo reached a climax with Jimi returning to his old trick of playing with his teeth.

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jimi-Hendrix-1967-Helsinki.jpg

The question thus remains – are these just spontaneous fleeting moments that we experience at random? Moreover, can we attain these states in any sort of systematic way?

Building off the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Steven Kotler’s research identifies four triggers that can help you get in a state of flow.  

  1. Clear Goals:  In order to achieve a state of flow, one must have a concrete understanding of what they want to achieve. Having a clear set of tangible goals provides purpose and structure to your efforts and ambitions.  
  2. Immediate Feedback: Just as a musician knows if they have played the wrong note or the surgeon is constantly aware of status of their patient, immediate feedback is a significant requirement of flow. It enables us to continually alter our actions in response to the situation to achieve our desired result, and meet the necessities of the current situation.
  3. Concentration in the Present Moment: To be in peak performance mode, we must be immersed in the activity. High levels of concentration effectively narrow our attention on the task at hand. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi notes in his seminal  book Flow, during these states of consciousness:

Only a very select range of information can be allowed into our awareness. Therefore, all the troubling thoughts that ordinarily keep passing through the mind are temporarily kept out of abeyance. 

4. Challenge /Skill Ratio:  The flow state exists between boredom and anxiety. That is, it occurs when an individual is pursuing an activity that has the appropriate level of challenge for their skill level. For instance, a tennis match is most enjoyable to play when the two players are evenly matched. When a skilled player competes against  an amateur, they get bored as they lack the challenge and competition. They fail to utilize the full capacity of their skills. On the contrary, the amateur is filled with anxiety as they are stretched beyond their present level of competency.

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lucgaloppin/6324319992

We all strive to experience moments which send shivers down our spine. Moments which provide us with temporary respite from the daily grind – the rat race. Experiencing flow puts you in a meditative state, jolting you into the ‘now’, silencing the nagging thoughts and trivial problems that we ruminate on throughout our day-to-day existence.

We can get to these optimal experiences and experience flow through pushing our boundaries. By pursuing our unquenchable thirst for new challenges.  Through learning new skills, and continually seeking novelty and unique experiences.  

It all begins with finding what activities resonate with you. The sort of things that you pursue because they have intrinsic value to you – activities that you engage it not primarily for fame or fortune, but because you deeply love and admire them.

So, what gets you in the state of flow?

Till next time,

AA